The side I see: challenging assumptions, changing minds

It’s funny how the books we read when we are young stick with us. One such book for me was Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, a science fiction story about a man, raised by Martians, who returns one day to Earth, and the clash of cultures and values that inevitably results.

What I recall most vividly were the Fair Witnesses, the licensed professionals that Heinlein invents for this book. Fair Witnesses receive extensive training in careful, impartial observation and assiduously avoid assumptions when called upon to provide their services.  In one memorable scene, one Fair Witness, Anne, demonstrates her unique skill to two other characters, Jubal and Jill. Jubal asks Anne, “That house on the hilltop — can you see what color they’ve painted it?” Anne  replies, “It’s white on this side.”

Jubal explains to Jill,

You see? It doesn’t occur to Anne to infer that the other side is white, too.  All the King’s horses couldn’t force her to commit herself…unless she went there and looked–and even then she wouldn’t assume that it stayed white after she left.

I never forgot what the Fair Witness said: “It’s white on this side.”  It’s unlikely that any of us is that precise or discerning when called upon to recount an incident or describe an object or problem.

Imagine the house on the hilltop. Now picture two people, each of whom stands facing a different side of the house, one person at the back, one at the front. Based on what they are able to see, front or back, each draws conclusions about the entire house – what color it is painted, what materials it is constructed of, whether repairs may be needed. But until each has left his original position and walked around the house, inspecting it from all sides, those conclusions remain suspect, based on incomplete data.

In teaching negotiation and mediation, I often discuss the scene from Heinlein’s book after administering an uncritical inference test known as “The Cash Register Exercise“. This exercise highlights the very human tendency to quickly fill in the gaps when information is missing and to draw assumptions about what we don’t know from what we do. (Click here to download the exercise and answer key in PDF.)

For those negotiating, information is indeed power. Examining issues from different angles can protect negotiators from bad deals or from missed opportunities.

For new mediators, the exercise and Heinlein’s story serve as a salutary reminder that our own assumptions can limit our effectiveness at the table. Cognitive error may blinker us, hampering us from helping those locked in conflict arrive at a more expansive understanding of the problems they face. The other lesson, too, is an obvious one: mediation offers fresh ways of looking at issues – from all sides, not just one, inviting parties to step away from their side of the house to see it in its entirety.

Seeing the house from all sides allows us to test or transcend our assumptions. Stepping away to gain a different view doesn’t mean giving up what you believe or need. With accurate and complete information, our conclusions can rest on surer ground. And it might even change our minds along with our vantage points.

6 responses to “The side I see: challenging assumptions, changing minds

  1. Interesting: That’s one fictional character that stuck with me too. Wow.

  2. I am a new mediatior and I have a question. How do I get the folks who pay me to mediate their disputes to look at the other person’s side–the other side of the house, so to speak? What are some good questions to ask? In sessions when I’ve asked, “What do you think Karen feels about this?” or “Put yourself in Rob’s place–what to you think he would say about…?” I normally get blank stares or “I don’t know…” as a response.

    • Michael, that’s the stuff of which mediation trainings and workshops are made, and I’m not sure I can even begin to answer that question in a single comment. It would take me hours to explain, step by step, the different ways I do that. The best advice I can give you is to get yourself a copy of Himmelstein and Friedman’s Challenging Conflict and read it. Through transcripts of actual mediations, this book does an outstanding job of demonstrating how mediators can get people to see things from a side other than their own. Good luck, Michael, and thanks so much for your comment.

  3. Hi Diane – couldn’t agree more. Testing assumptions and inferences is an area for development in my own mediation practice. I made the mother of all assumptions a few months back when my wife and I put our children to bed. We have two children and a ‘man-marking’ strategy – we each read them a story and then tuck them up. Normally I finish first and my wife takes a bit longer, so I thought I’d pop out to the supermarket and pick something up for dinner. I went downstarirs, left a note for my wife and jumped in the car to the shops. As I was walking down the isle pushing my trolly I noticed someone walking towards me – they looked familiar, yes it was my wife!! She had the same idea, we both assumed the other was still in the bedroom reading stories.
    I now test assumptions, including my own!

    Best wishes


    • Aled, glad to hear that you enjoyed this post! And what a great story about you and your wife. Thanks for sharing that one!